My history of British Manufacturing

My history of British Manufacturing
My history of British Manufacturing

Tuesday 18 May 2021

Plastic - friend and foe

When polythene was invented by ICI scientists in the 1930s a big question was its possible use. This was not unlike the earlier invention of the typewriter, where people were highly sceptical about the likely level of demand. With polythene, the invention of  and urgent need to deploy radar came in the nick of time as miles of cable demanded lighter, more flexible insulation. Then came Perspex, perfect for the cockpits of aircraft. The rest, as they say is history. 

We still love plastic, Lego of all sizes but much else besides. We need to fall out of love, just as we are with coal and oil, from which, of course, it is made.

It is shocking that the top twenty manufacturers of polymers (from which plastic comes) are responsible for half of all single use plastic polluting our planet.

We all have to take responsibility but so too do the top manufacturers of single use plastic who have the financial muscle to make a difference.  

Saturday 8 May 2021

Will our behaviour change once it is over?

Before March 2020, the UK economy depended on our passion for spending, buying things and experiences. Could this change, and, if it does, what would be the impact?
Retail was suffering in any event, but will we have kicked our addiction? Zoe Wood asks someone good questions in her piece in the Guardian. 
There is then the evening economy. Can it possibly survive with social distancing? After all, what is the point of a young person going out if they can't be physically near to another? What is the point of spending money on fashionable clothes, if there is no one to see them?
I see it as a sort of money go round. We spend some of our money on essentials; the proportion with depend on income and dependents. The remainder, to the extent there is any, can be spent on things and experiences. Those who sell or provide these, then earn and so the money goes round again. It is an economy that consumes relatively little in the way of raw material; the thing that is bought is mainly added perceived value - so the fashion designer, the marketeer, the shop designer and fitter
The raw material may make up a small proportion of the item, but it is significant in two particular ways. How it is produced: so cotton, often seen as the good guy compared to artificial fibre, demands some 1800 gallons of water for just one pair of jeans, and in a world short of water this is unsustainable. The other part of production is labour, and there are endless accounts of workers being paid derisory wages and having appalling working conditions. 
Change may be happening. The leader in the Guardian of 8 May 2021 speaks of a move to enjoy second hand clothes. 
Britain's industrial revolution was built to a great extent on cotton; can second hand clothes be a part of a second revolution?

Thursday 6 May 2021

Festival of Britain

‘THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A NATION is presented for the first time in this Festival of Britain and millions of the British people will be the authors of it, displaying through every means by which Man expresses his nature how we have honoured our stewardship and used our talents. Conceived among the untidied ruins of war and fashioned through days of harsh economy, this Festival is a challenge to the sloughs of the present and a shaft of confidence cast forth against the future.’

So began the introduction to the Festival brochure.

The first record of the idea of a Festival of Britain is to be found in 1943, at the point of the Second World War when victory, although challenging, at last seemed possible. The Festival was to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition, and many had in mind a similar exhibition of the nation’s products. This made sense, for a good number of such exhibitions had followed that of 1851 and business liked them. 

The Festival, as its plans emerged under the directorship of journalist, Sir Gerald Barry, and chairmanship of Churchill’s right hand man, Lord Ismay, looked rather different. I quote from the first of three talks Sir Gerald gave to the Royal Society of Arts in 1952:

‘We were going to tell a story not industry by industry, still less firm by firm, but the consecutive story of the British people in the land they live in and by… each type of manufacture and each individual exhibit would occur in the setting appropriate to that part of the story in which it naturally fell e.g. steel knives and sinks in the home part of the story, steel machines in the industry part of the story, steel chassis in transport, and so on…each industrial exhibit will be chosen by the exhibition organisers themselves in consultation with manufacturers and trade associations.’ 

A stock list was compiled of some 20,000 items from 5,000 manufacturers, only half of which could be exhibited in the space available. Design was key, and was overseen by the still relatively new Council of Industrial Design (now the Design Council). “The exhibits ranged from locomotives to lipsticks and in value many thousands of pounds to a few pennies.”

I have traced the exhibits that I have so far found to the origins of the relevant manufacturer, in some cases back to the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851. 

My great grandfather exhibited in 1851 and I begin my forthcoming book, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World, with a survey of the 1851 exhibition catalogue. 

Wednesday 5 May 2021

How Britain Created the Manufacturing World

 I'm thrilled that Pen & Sword have confirmed their intention to publish my current work in progress, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World. Now published as How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World  

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an assertion, but history shows that, in the late eighteenth century, a remarkable combination of factors and circumstances combined to give birth to Britain as the first manufacturing nation. Further factors allowed it to remain top manufacturing dog well into the twentieth century, although other countries were busy playing catch up. Through two world wars and the surrounding years, British manufacturing remained strong, albeit whilst ceding the lead to the United States.

This book seeks to tell the remarkable story of British manufacturing, using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a prism. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole had conceived an idea of bringing together exhibits from manufacturers across the world to show to its many millions of visitors the pre-eminence of the British. 1851 was not the start, but rather a pause for a bask in glory. 

I trace back from the exhibits in Hyde Park’s crystal palace to identify the factors that gave rise to this pre-eminence. I then follow developments up until the Festival of Britain exactly one century later. Steam power and communication by electric telegraph, both British inventions, predated the Exhibition. After it, came the sewing machine and bicycle, motor car and aeroplane, but also electrical power, radio and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries where Britain played a leading part. I conclude with the Festival of Britain in 1951 as an exhausted nation looked forward with hope  

There is now the sequel looking at British manufacturing since 1951. It is called Vehicles to Vaccines.